Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, I often saw people walking house-to-house, dressed in suit and tie, even in 100-degree weather, carrying little books and briefcases talking about a god they called “Jehovah.” As a five-year-old kid I learned that they were called Jehovah’s Witnesses. A sad reality in the inner city was that when they would come to the house we would lock the door, hide, and pretend we weren’t home instead of engaging them with truth and love. They would leave pamphlets about Jehovah’s coming and how to live like Jehovah. How there are 144,000 that are going to go to heaven, as well as information about their publication The Watchtower. You could be one of the 144,000 if you placed your allegiance to their hall, which was their picture of Jehovah’s world, what they called Kingdom Hall.
For years, they would consistently, intentionally, and aggressively knock, seeking to communicate Jehovah’s return and the need to commit our lives to living for Jehovah. I realize that my five-year-old understanding of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is somewhat inaccurate, but nonetheless my take-home question was what puzzled me the most: why didn’t we go tell people that they should live for Jesus at my African American Baptist Church? We prayed to Jesus, we worshiped Him, and we sang songs about Him, yet none of my Christian friends, their parents, deacons, preachers, nor even the Logan household would go aggressively and intentionally tell people to get ready for Jesus’ return.
Remembering this contrast in my own church growing up, and even as I became a pastor myself, I realized that I saw my Christianity primarily flowing out of “insider life.” Everything was done inside the walls of the church building. The people who weren’t Christians were considered “them people,” but we were “God’s people.” So I was always taught not to be like those wicked people out there, but to be like these holy people in here. What kept coming back to my mind as a young, churchgoing kid was, “How come we don’t tell them wicked people about Jesus so that they might become holy people, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses do?”
Poor strategy affected my ministry as I began my career as a thirty-two-year-old minister at a small Plymouth Brethren Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. I was utterly dumbfounded as to how I was going to grow this church. I began to invite my friends to come and join us. When two or three did, it still left me with only twenty-three people. I was forced to figure out how in the world I was going to grow a church for the glory of God. I soon realized that I had not been taught how to missionally engage a community with the gospel for the purpose of seeing the lost become found in Christ, and helping them to grow from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity.
I was clueless, and I realized I had an unclear definition of missional engagement and discipleship. I had clearly not experienced either of these things through training at my former church.
As I began to look back, I wondered if there had ever been an emphasis to reach the lost in our preaching, in our singing, and in our ministry. All this affected my preaching, my teaching, my disciple-making, and particularly my view and practice of evangelism.
By God’s grace, the clarification of what was missing came to me one day while I was listening to the song “Ain’t Nobody Worryin’” by Anthony Hamilton. Anthony is a soul and R&B singer from Charlotte. He sings earnestly and beautifully about the problems facing his community. He sings of gunshots, sirens, death, suffering, homelessness, hunger, poverty, poor education, crime, unemployment, and yet “ain’t nobody worryin’.”
When Anthony Hamilton sings of the pain of his neighborhood, he does not use his imagination. The children dying, the mothers crying, the rampant strife on the street—these are not conjured up images that came to him in a dream. Rather, they are real concerns of real people. He sings about the pain of his block because he knows the pain on his block. In just the same manner, the church, when it seeks to engage and agonize over its community, must know the community intimately.
Suddenly the missing component of my ministry dawned on me. My ministry lacked the appropriate sense of agony. Agony for the community into which I had entered. Agony for my neighbors who were suffering and broken. Agony over my willingness to be comfortably distant.
For all my theoretical learning, the great Christian truths I had learned, my ministry lacked heart. I was on an abstract mission, not one that actually reached into communities with the appropriate love and care it requires. Though I sought to reach the least, the last, and the lost through the gospel, I was emotionally disconnected. I did not experience the community’s pain, nor did I personally invest myself in its healing and salvation.
Mission does not simply amount to a profession of theological truths in new contexts. We cannot hope for the mere intellectual salvation of community members, abstractly hoping that they will hear our speeches and come to Christ. Instead, we must enter into communities physically and emotionally. We must enter into their suffering and speak the gospel into their individual, broken contexts. We cannot effectively serve broken people and bring them the gospel unless we know their brokenness.
This realization motivated me to expand my understanding of the gospel ministry in the urban context. The practice of urban missions is extremely difficult. Urban communities face the relentless terrors of senseless violence, broken families, poor education, and inadequate housing. How does one enter into a fully orbed mission in such a context? I believe the answer begins with a commitment to engage in a ministry that is marked by agony— that feels the pain, confusion and darkness of the community it desires to see saved. It is a love for our communities that follows the example of the empathetic love of Jesus.
Urban ministry will not succeed if we continue to make the false dichotomy between them people out there and us people in here. It must be all of us together, feeling each other’s pain, carrying each other’s burdens, agonizing in the trenches of real life battles and suffering, caring deeply for one another.
In a city such as Camden, flooded with idols—immersed, swamped, saturated with every god but Jesus—how do you plan on living out the gospel in the community? It is a community that is hostile to the true and living God, and thus, hostile to one another as well. How are you going to pump out the toxic and acidic idols of Satan’s age-old schemes to cripple and corrupt the people of your city?
Scottie had spent time in jail for felonies. When he got out, he was invited regularly to Epiphany Philly, where I previously served as a pastor and out of which I planted. He was not into it at all, but because he was trying to do better and, as he would say, trying to be positive, he did visit. Scottie’s brother and sister came with me as part of my original launch team coming out of Epiphany Philly and planting in Camden. His brother and sister continued inviting him, so Scottie finally came over one day to my yard and saw that the growing congregation was just loaded with people from Camden. It was interesting for him so he would hang around. I shared the gospel with him, asking him about receiving Christ but he kept saying, “Nah, I’m good. I love what y’all are doing but that’s for y’all, not for me.”
However, he came to the official launch worship service. The next morning, Scottie knocked on my door and asked if he could talk with me. As exhausted as I was, I invited him in and asked him, “What’s on your heart, brother?” He said, “Man, I received the Lord yesterday. The message pierced my heart. I want to walk with Jesus, and I want to walk with y’all. Tell me what I need to do. I’m looking for a wife and I’m saving my money. I’m about to get a house and get my life together.” I rejoiced with him. And when he told me he played the guitar, I told him, “Walk with Pastor T.” We do what we call synchronized discipleship; if you’re a worship team type I’m going to put you with my worship pastor. So Pastor T and I walked with Scottie for several months. He grew in leaps and bounds and played the guitar for the church. A short time later, he came to me desiring to marry a young lady in our church. She was like a daughter to me, and I gave him the green light to have the conversation with her. She said yes, and they were married. In addition, he was ordained as a deacon because he was serving viably and actively. So within six years of his receiving Christ, Scottie was baptized, got married, and ordained as a deacon. He continues to walk in discipleship and also disciples others on the worship team. He and his wife are also a mentoring couple for newly married couples.
Prior to his coming to the Lord, Scottie saw God as a power but not the power; he seemed to see God but did not see God high and lifted up. Scottie always had a decent respect and view of God, but what I didn’t get from him initially was that he didn’t see God as ultimate; he saw God as great and good, but not ultimate. My prayer for Scottie from the get-go was that he would see there is no God in positive living, and that he would only see Christ high and lifted up and mighty to save. I wanted Scottie to see his deep need for a Savior. I wanted him to realize that his sins had separated him from God and he needed Christ to save him, not just some so-called “positivity.” Once he came to that launch worship service where there was celebration and exaltation and preaching—Scottie eventually conveyed to me, “Man, I never saw God like that. Pastor Doug, it was crazy. The Lord just kept messing in my heart and, man, He just saved me. And I was rejoicing.”
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Doug Logan serves as founder and lead pastor of Epiphany Bible Fellowship Church of Camden. He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and serves on the boards of Thriving and Acts 29, two church-planting networks.
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